When he was hired as a sales associate about a year ago, Antonio Martinez was polite, hardworking — and a newly baptized Christian, a former co-worker recalled Wednesday. He seemed like a typical young adult working a typical retail job.
"Within a few weeks he has a floor mat down in the back room praying to Mecca, telling us he's going to a mosque and converting to Islam," the former colleague said. She insisted on anonymity because she is not authorized by her employer to speak publicly and because she fears for her family's safety.
The sudden change of faith is among the many mysteries surrounding Martinez, 21, who is also known as Muhammad Hussain. He was charged Wednesday with attempting to detonate what he thought was a vehicle bomb at the Armed Forces Career Center in the 5400 block of Baltimore National Pike.
For reasons that remain shrouded, federal authorities say Martinez not only embraced Islam recently but grabbed hold of a radical interpretation of the religion — one that exalts violence against adherents of other faiths as a righteous path to glory.
The FBI says it secretly recorded Martinez talking about killing American service members. "Every soldier that we see in uniform will be killed on the spot, Insha'Allah," or God willing, he said, according to court records. "They will be killed until they stop waging war against … Islam."
Martinez resisted his mother's entreaties for him to "be like everybody else," he said in another conversation recorded by the FBI. And on the Internet, where Martinez advocated extremism, a Facebook "friend" identified as his brother-in-law tried without apparent success to temper his vitriol.
Martinez, who has a round face and scraggly facial hair, described himself this way on the social networking site: "IM just a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam." Liberally mixing slang spelling with Muslim terms, he said "we gotta rise up" and "continue the establishment of Islam on the earth."
Few details have emerged about Martinez's background. He attended Prince George's County public schools, and the 2005 Laurel High School yearbook lists him as a member of that year's freshman class. It is not clear whether he graduated from the school.
Though he said in court Wednesday that he worked in construction, he also claimed in recorded conversations not to take regular jobs because he knew that tax revenue "goes to the military to fight our mujahideen brothers," court records show.
According to state court records, he has faced criminal charges three times.
In 2006 he was charged with armed robbery and handgun offenses in Montgomery County. The outcome of that charge was unclear, though he was 16 at the time and the charges may have been transferred to juvenile court.
Two years later, he was charged with car theft in Prince George's County and theft under $100 in Montgomery. He was convicted on the lesser theft charge and received a 90-day suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay $500 in fines and $160 in restitution.
At some point, his mother became concerned with his increasingly fervent religious path.
"She wants me to be like everybody else, being in school, working," he said earlier this month, according to court records. "For me it's different. I have this zeal for deen" — a word that can mean "religion" or "way of life" — "and she doesn't understand that."
On Thursday, a woman who identified herself as Martinez's mom said she tried to persuade her son not to convert to Islam. The woman, who would not give her name, said she's a "devout American," according to the Associated Press, and is upset and embarrassed by her son's actions.
By contrast, Martinez said his wife — whom he married last summer, according to a message she posted on Facebook — understands his desire to "fight jihad," a phrase sometimes interpreted as holy war. "She said she doesn't want to stop me," he said, according to court records. "She will support everything I want to do."
His wife, identified on Facebook as Naimah Ismail-Hussain, did not respond to messages Wednesday. Her Facebook page lists her as a senior majoring in English and education at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. It also says she works as a circulation assistant, but a woman who answered the phone at the college library said Ismail-Hussain was not working Wednesday.
While Ismail-Hussain studies and works in Massachusetts, Martinez has been living at an apartment in Woodlawn. After a reporter knocked on the door Wednesday, loud weeping could be heard coming from the apartment.
Neighborhood teenagers say Martinez kept to himself and came outside only to watch his little brother play. He usually wore a black-and-white checked head covering and sometimes knelt in the grass to pray, they said.
Martinez has worshiped at two mosques in shopping strips on Woodlawn Drive, across from Woodlawn High School, shopkeepers said. News of his arrest came as a surprise to the merchants, who said they knew him only as a customer who prayed at the mosques.
Naeem Rafiq, who owns the Al Makkah Halal Meat and Grocery in the Security Plaza shopping center, said Martinez sometimes came to the nearby Faizah-e-Madina Mosque. "He prayed with me two, three times a day," Rafiq said.
The Pakistan native, who has owned his store for 11 years, said Martinez started coming to the mosque about a year ago, but then switched to another one nearby, Al Madina.
"He goes to the other mosque. More than six months, I don't see him," Rafiq said.
He had just heard the news about Martinez's arrest from a brother-in-law who had seen a CNN report, and said he was surprised by it. "We don't like these things in my country," he said.
Martinez's former co-worker at the children's clothing store vividly recalls the day he announced his conversion. Asked why he took such a major step, "He said he met some people and started reading the Quran," the employee said.
She and fellow co-workers reminded him that Islam had suffered "bad publicity" in the United States, and Martinez acknowledged that both his mother and girlfriend at the time did not approve. But he was undeterred.
He told them, "This is something I feel I have to do," she said.
The ex-colleague said she "never had any inkling" that Martinez harbored anti-American views. In fact, she said, he told co-workers he once tried to join the Army, something court documents say Martinez also told an FBI informant.
Martinez's public Facebook page provides a window into his views, which appear to have been formed by the time of his first post, in August: "When are these crusaders gonna realize they cant win? How many more lives are they willing to sacrafice."
Sometimes his posts were unremarkable. On Sept. 14: "thanks 4 da happy bdays everybody."
More common were postings of videos that glorified "jihad" and statements that praised, among others, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to last year's shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13.
In late September, Martinez wrote: "The sword is cummin [and] the reign of opression is about 2 cease inshallah."
Kojo Ghana, who describes himself on Facebook as Martinez's brother-in-law, tried to temper his emotions. "Until that day comes Muhammad. Help those who are in need of help, volunteer at a food bank, tutor, or something Constructive."
In mid-October, Martinez posted the following: "Do you really want to spend your entire lives praying for longevity? WE were born in order to die."
Again, Ghana counseled restraint. "Yes," he wrote, "but we shouldn't be looking to die either. There's always balance in Islam, only Allah knows when each persons number is up…" Ghana did not respond to a message Wednesday.
By late October, according to court records, Martinez seemed intent on attacking the military recruiting center on Route 40. He claimed to know someone who could provide weapons and he detailed how he could enter the facility from the roof and "shoot everybody in the place."
Last week, in a recorded conversation that is detailed in court documents, Martinez sounded content with his choices. "Glad I am not like everyone else my age, 21 — going out, having fun, be in college, all that stuff. That's not me…that not what Allah has in mind for me."
Sun reporters Frank D. Roylance, Jean Marbella, Julie Scharper, Tricia Bishop and Justin Fenton contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this article.